BY DAMIEN MCCRYSTAL
Lunch. A beautiful word that promises so much. I’ve spent a lifetime investing time, energy, and money into it, constantly worried that those of us who lunch seriously – meaning several hours and rather more bottles – are a vanishing breed.
Twenty years ago, I decided to make an official stand to revive it. I was restaurant reviewer for the Sunday Business (sadly now defunct) and felt it was time to attempt a world record for lunching. At the time – and I spent a lot of time dedicated to both lunch and dinner – the former occasionally merged into the latter, and I didn’t seem to need too much sleep in those days.
Herbie Skeete, then a Reuters bigwig, said his firm would sponsor it, and Marco Pierre White offered to host it at one of his restaurants. So I rang Guinness World Records and asked if they’d accept it as a record attempt.
The plan was to aim for 72 hours, not leaving the table except for lavatory breaks and leg stretches, and helped by teams of friends joining me in shifts. I also stipulated that fine wine was vital; I’ve always found that quality keeps me conscious.
After some deliberation, the Guinness people replied that, regretfully, they could not participate as they had recently decided not to have anything to do with record attempts that were life-threatening.
How depressing. Yet another victory for the puritans in their war against lunch – a war that had been growing in intensity since the mid-1980s, when the American banks bought so much of the City. Their work culture spread to other companies, perhaps encouraged by the evil cult of Human Resources, which seeks to outlaw fun from the workplace.
But there are establishments where you can still witness old-school lunching in action. Boisdale is a major player in this limited field, with four branches around town in which to practice. Most of the alternatives appear to be in Mayfair, notably Le Boudin Blanc in Shepherd’s Market, Bellamy’s off Berkeley Square, Langan’s Brasserie off Piccadilly, and Mews of Mayfair near Bond Street.
They are all popular with property industry folk and hedge funders. They order expensive wine in quantity and seem untroubled by the passing of time – and length here is all-important. Everything can be savoured – the wine, the food, the conversation and, best of all, the fact that the rest of the world is stuck behind a desk with a sandwich from Pret. It heightens the enjoyment if it is dark by the time lunch is over.
In my days of restaurant reviewing, 15-hour lunches were quite commonplace – probably two per week – and 18-hour lunches were not a rarity. On one occasion, Bruce Anderson – the enormous journalist (in media stature and frame) – and I were having lunch at the Savoy Grill (before it was sold to a succession of owners). We started with gin at the bar, moving into the dining room for lunch, with a drop of Chablis and a magnum of claret, before going upstairs to the American Bar for port, of which we shared 50 glasses. The bill was £550 (about £800 today), which seemed very reasonable, all things considered. It would have been more but I had a party to get to.
The evening ended in minor disgrace, which brings me to another observation: It is not the drink that tips one over the edge, but the taxi ride between venues. Trust me. If you stay in one place you’ll be fine; if you take the session elsewhere, it’ll end badly.
A profound example of this phenomenon happened to me after one lunch at Le Gavroche. As I was leaving at about 4pm, a group of men recognised me from the photograph that accompanied my restaurant column. They invited me to join them for a drink. Flattered, I accepted and when we were asked to leave at about 6pm they suggested a taxi to their gambling club. We gambled for a while, then I had the appalling idea of returning their generosity by inviting them to my club for drinks.
It was not the sort of club where raucous swearing – my new friends’ chief method of communication – was encouraged. After a while the club chairman emerged and suggested we might be happier elsewhere. The group insisted I experience “a different sort of club, in our manor”, which was in the East End. It was a strip club and a pretty extreme one at that. We were immediately booked into a private room where a few strippers displayed their wares. It’s really not my sort of thing, and, as the strippers merged their job titles into, er, escorts, I made my excuses and left.
You have to be careful who you are lunching with to be sure nothing too unsavoury happens, and be confident they can maintain a strong pace without placing themselves in excessive danger.
On one memorable afternoon, two of my friends were hospitalised after we had all been drinking flaming sambucas at Mirabelle, Marco Pierre White’s place in Mayfair. We had to carry one victim to his car and into the arms of his appalled chauffeur. Minutes later, the other fell sideways off his chair and, as I tried to get him a taxi, he vomited on top of my head. (Like a great many people, he is considerably taller than me.) Outside, he fell again, his head bouncing off the pavement in Curzon Street. I cancelled the cab and ordered an ambulance, accompanying him to hospital.
When he was given the all-clear, I went home to discover that the first to collapse was in some sort of coma in a different hospital. (He was fully recovered by the next day.) My wife was furious about the hospitalisations and also about the vomit on top of my head, which had now matted in my hair.
But while I continue to plough an increasingly lonely furrow I do notice others, particularly East European ambassadors to the Court of St James, indulging in massive luncheons. Yet membership of the long-lunch club is shrinking. We are close to achieving endangered-species status. So do your bit. Book a table, grab a solid pal – or me, even – order some good wines, and cancel the afternoon’s engagements.